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The following article was written by Annelie Ekelin from Ronneby in Sweden. With Pirjo Elovaara, Annelie launched the "Women Writing on the Net" group in the framework of the Dialogue project. In addition to Ronneby, the towns of Bologna and Lewisham took part in the one-year Dialogue project which was part funded by ISPO, the Information Society Project Office. The project was led by Pamela Lama from Bologna.

The following text is part of the "Storybook" written about Dialogue by its participants entitled "An Online Dialogue for Democracy. Using information and communication technologies to empower citizens in Europe's towns and cities". You can also read two other texts by Annelie about women online taken from the Dialogue StoryBook in Connected Magazine. One is about the paradox of time and the other writing and empowerment.

Citizens involvement - on a basic level

A basic principle of democracy is spreading power and allowing more people to get involved in decision-making in Society. But the outcome of the activities for citizen involvement is always dependent on the individuals and their effort to make the visions come true. The tendency shows that experimental activities aiming to develop democracy nowadays are taking place outside traditional institutions, beyond the given structures, related to an individual perspective. Therefore we have to talk about democracy using terminology such as: individual initiatives, involvement, empowerment, openness, dialogue and participation.

In a project like DIALOGUE, aiming to increase citizen involvement, there are two parallel aspects that have to be stimulated, the support of the individual's empowerment, but also the general stimulation of engagement in the development of the Society. But in order to make something happen on both levels at the same time, you have to start out on a basic level. You need to constantly fortify the involved actors and the project process itself to achieve development. To make this possible there must be an on-going dialogue, based on openness and listening, concerning both levels.

Women in Ronneby

Let me tell you about Ronneby, a small town in the south of Sweden. Ronneby, which is a former industrial town with heavy mechanical industries, by tradition dominated by male structures, has quickly restructured towards a knowledge-oriented economic life. In ICT-studios set up in several accessible places, like the public library, the local citizens are given free access to Internet and are allowed to use the computer equipment for free. A number of introductions of computers and the Internet, held by librarians and other trainers, have in recent times been offered to citizens.

The result of an academic examination, ordered by the municipalities and the administration of the City council of the county shows that women still do not feel as if they are involved in the local ICT-activities. They want to be more active and get the opportunity to influence and control the development of the ICT and Society, but they want to do it in their own way. This lack of representation of women is not unique to Ronneby or Sweden, it is a general problem that concerns the further ICT-development worldwide, an issue we have to pay attention to and deal with now as well as in the future. On the basis of to this knowledge the Ronneby part of the DIALOGUE project concentrated on how to get women more involved in local activities.

To be given the tools and the opportunity to get the skills doesn't seem enough; you also need to be guided into a new arena. This guidance must be done based on your personal needs and on your own terms. First then you are able to mobilize enough courage and curiosity to go further and discover the connections between your present situation and your place within a new context. Then you are able to formulate the question: what can I do to make things better?

Human and pedagogical bridges

The methods of approaching the local projects in Ronneby were different compared with other DIALOGUE partners. This was also the strength of the DIALOGUE - project, allowing such a diversity to exist, corresponding to the reality of our complex world. Among the several purposes of the project there was a common goal that we had put forward, to bridge the gap between non-experts and experts in the Information Society, targeting people that could easily be excluded in the forming of the Information Society. In Ronneby the groups included poorly educated women, as well as the unemployed, immigrants and elderly women.

In Ronneby our aim was to close the gap between technology and everyday life by using the project leaders as "mediators", in order to create a dialogue between and about these different levels. Our strategy was to develop and use a pedagogical method that always puts technology in the people's service - not the other way round. Lena Mattisson, one of the project leaders of Mother.daughter.come, once explained this approach: "If you could make the training as close to reality as possible I think it's possible to mix the two things. Meaningless exercises should be banned! It's my opinion that the groups in Ronneby work in this direction, no technology for it's own sake, content is always most important..." The use of democratic methods in the activities, such as open learning methods, where the participants are able to influence the form of the project, also correspond to the goals of increased citizens' involvement.

Actually a woman involved in the Women writing on the net - project, proved that it is possible to learn ICT by cooking! She got an email with a recipe written in Italian from a woman in Bologna. By using an on-line glossary she was able to translate the recipe, then bake the cakes (they tasted very good!) and finally she made a webpage with the recipe both in Swedish and Italian. The result is a learning-process that is grounded in her previous knowledge about cooking, which could be seen as a basic idea about how to achieve sustained learning.

Writing and discussions in the groups turned out to be a fundamental tool when building this bridge between expert-knowledge and everyday experience. The integration of the technology into ordinary life, is a ground for discussions and reflections as well as. It is related to a wider context in which, your personal experiences of being a woman in society or the social and cultural context of food and eating. This is one important way to deepen the new knowledge.

On a more general level there were even activities within the projects aimed to bridge the gap between the citizens and local politicians, based on the participant's expectations on local democracy. One example, was the establishing of the on-line forum "Val98" on the Ronneby municipality website before the national election in September, where the participants in the different project groups could start and maintain a dialogue with their local politicians. This was put up in connection with an earlier established web-forum, "The public book" where the citizens were able to give their opinions and visions about Ronneby 2000. This has turned out to be a new arena for an on-going dialogue between citizens and local politicians.

Women in the second group of Women writing on the net also wrote letters to the members of the European parliament aiming to spread information about the DIALOGUE project, get information about the members work and also ask them how to finance a study-trip to Brussels.

Circles on the water

In Ronneby our strategy also has been to encourage and create networks and start a process in order to make the project idea stay alive. To avoid a project becoming an isolated exception, the work that has been done within it must be evaluated and the experiences and knowledge must be transformed and brought into the project leaders main work outside their engagement as project leaders and brought into new projects. The project activities stimulated the participants to make their own initiatives and understand how they could continue to develop their skills further in everyday life. One concrete example is the "Women writing on the net" group, which has started a writing-group on their own and also joined a larger, regional network for women.

In order to reach true sustainability we all need to evaluate and reflect over how this project was done, mapping out the road to knowledge, for the participants as well as the project leaders. This is the only way to start a chain reaction and make circles on the water; the gained knowledge must be spread, repeated and developed further in another context, a new learning situation. Writing this Storybook together is a good start.

Annelie Ekelin, February 1999

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